Fermented foods

The glory of Korean cooking.

korean food 521 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
korean food 521
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
As we entered the “first-ever Korean Food Fair in Los Angeles,” we were greeted with the sign “Lunch – from Korean naturally fermented food.”
“The basis for Korean food is fermented foods,” said Jae-Soo Kim, president of the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation, in his presentation about Korean ingredients. As an example, he mentioned soy sauce, a seasoning that’s common in countless pantries, not just Korean ones.
There are three categories of Korean fermented foods, explained Korean TV chef and co-host of the presentation Cathlyn Choi. The best known is kimchi, which many think of as pickled cabbage but is actually made from many different vegetables.
In fact, said Choi, there are over 200 kinds. Kimchi, which is flavored with chili powder, garlic, ginger and often fish sauce, is served as a side dish and is also used to flavor fried rice, soups and other dishes (see recipe).
The second category is fermented foods made from soybeans and salt. In addition to soy sauce, Koreans make soybean pastes that resemble Japanese miso. The third category is salted seafood.
A popular Korean fermented food, said Kim, is gochujang, Korean red pepper paste, which is made of red pepper powder, sweet rice powder and salt. Red pepper paste is “the most indispensable, distinctly Korean and frequently used ingredient in the Korean pantry,” wrote Marja Vongerichten in The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen. “It’s used in just about every sauce, marinade, soup and braise; it goes on poultry, beef, pork, seafood, tofu and more.”
Guest speaker Bernard Guillas, the French chef of The Marine Room in San Diego, is fond of Korean flavorings and uses them in Western dishes at his restaurant. He makes a mushroom casserole adapted from Korean bibimbap, a dish of vegetables and rice flavored with red pepper paste. To finish a dish of seared fish he uses kalbi glaze, a delicately sweet sauce that Koreans use with beef; it’s made of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, sesame oil, ginger and often, chopped fruit.
Like Koreans, Guillas considers kimchi good for digestion and often makes Korean- inspired pickles, such as fish pickled with Korean persimmon vinegar. At the food fair, he prepared a delicious appetizer of salmon fillet cured for two days with Korean pepper paste, smoked sea salt, sesame seeds and citrus zest. He served it with a salad of greens and seaweed and with pickled slices of Korean pear, a large type of Asian pear, which turned red from a marinade of pomegranate vinegar and pickling spices.
Soy sauce contributed flavor to several dishes at the lunch, including braised baby potatoes with dried hot peppers, spicy tofu soup, grilled beef sirloin and grilled marinated lamb chops with sautéed red and yellow peppers. Seafood came in a flavorful sauce seasoned with soybean paste. Red pepper paste added pleasing piquancy to stir-fried mushrooms.
We sampled traditional kimchi made from napa cabbage, known in Hebrew as kruv sini (Chinese cabbage), spiced with hot red pepper. Not all the kimchi was fiery. There was a cucumber and Asian pear kimchi that resembled a light relish rather than a pickle.
Another delicate kimchi that we like is white cabbage kimchi, which has a subtle flavor because its spicing is toned down and it is made without hot red pepper powder. In white kimchi “only a pinch of hot red pepper threads is used, resulting in a pale pink color,” wrote Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall in Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen. The ingredients in her white cabbage kimchi recipe include radish, Asian pear, green onions, garlic, chestnuts, pine nuts, jujubes (Chinese dates), ginger and lemon juice.
Fermented foods were prominent at the booths of Korean products presented at the fair. One vendor exhibiting kimchi had a banner announcing that Health Magazine had selected it as one of the world’s top five healthiest foods.
Several booths exhibited vinegar, which is popular in Korea not just for seasoning food but also for diluting with water to make beverages. There was brown rice drinking vinegar and vinegars made of pomegranates, blueberries and blackberries.
We were surprised at how much we enjoyed a drink made of black garlic; it was aromatic and refreshing but didn’t taste like garlic. Black garlic is made by fermenting heads of garlic so that they lose their pungency and become sweet. In Korea, this garlic is eaten as a snack and even added to chocolate.
When the food fair was almost over, we relaxed with cups of warming persimmon leaf tea. Sampling this tea made us realize that we should prepare it in our own kitchen. When we came home, we gathered leaves from our persimmon tree and spread them on a tray to dry. Several days later we crumbled a few of the leaves into a teapot, added hot water and enjoyed a tea from our garden.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This recipe is from The Best of Korean Cuisine by Karen Hulene Bartell, who notes that the kimchi keeps up to a week in the refrigerator.
In November, wrote Bartell, Koreans celebrate a kimchi holiday in which neighbors traditionally share each other’s garden produce for making these fermented vegetables. “Historically, the harsh conditions forced people to preserve vegetables in order to survive the cold winters.” Now, people eat kimchi because they enjoy its “subtle heat and tang.”
Makes 900 grams (2 pounds)
❖ 1 large head (900 gr. or 2 pounds) Chinese cabbage ❖ 3 Tbsp. salt ❖ 6 hot red peppers ❖ 6 green onions ❖ 6 garlic cloves ❖ 1 Tbsp. grated ginger root ❖ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
Cut cabbage into 2.5-cm (1-inch) slices.
Dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in enough water to cover the cabbage slices in a nonreactive container, such as a large crockery or glass jar.
Allow the cabbage to steep in the salted water for 18 to 24 hours at room temperature. Rinse the cabbage well, drain and set aside.
Chop the peppers (including the seeds), green onions, garlic and ginger, and mix with remaining 1 tablespoon salt and the cayenne pepper. Add the chopped pepper mixture to 1 cup water in a nonreactive container large enough to contain the cabbage. Pack the cabbage in the container, adding enough water to cover, and gently stir the mixture.
Refrigerate for several days before serving.
Remove the kimchi from its liquid before serving.
This easy-to-prepare dish of braised dried mushrooms garnished with sesame seeds and hot pepper flakes is a tasty appetizer on its own, or a fine accompaniment for roast chicken, grilled steak or baked tofu served with rice.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 20 dried shiitake or black mushrooms (about 55 gr. or 2 ounces) ❖ 4 tsp. vegetable oil ❖ 3 garlic cloves, minced ❖ 1 green onion, white and green parts chopped separately ❖ 2/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock or broth, or water ❖ 2 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste ❖ 2 Tbsp. rice wine or sherry ❖ 1 tsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil ❖ 1½ teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted (for sprinkling) ❖ Hot red pepper flakes or ground hot red pepper (for sprinkling)
Rinse mushrooms. Soak them in hot water for ½ hour. Remove mushrooms, reserving liquid.
Rinse again. Cut off stems.
Heat vegetable oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and stir over heat for about 10 seconds. Add mushrooms, white part of green onion, stock, soy sauce and wine. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until mushrooms are tender; add 2 or 3 tablespoons water if pan becomes dry.
Off heat, add sesame oil and toss. Stir in green part of green onion. Taste, and add more soy sauce if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature, sprinkled with sesame seeds and pepper flakes.
This recipe for potatoes cooked in sweetened soy sauce is from The Best of Korean Cuisine; author Bartell serves it hot. At Korean restaurants it’s also served at room temperature, as part of a selection of appetizers.
Makes 8 servings as an appetizer
❖ 4 sweet red peppers, coarsely chopped ❖ ½ tsp. salt ❖ ½ cup soy sauce ❖ ½ cup raw sugar or brown sugar ❖ 3 garlic cloves, minced ❖ 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar ❖ 3 cups peeled diced potatoes (in 1.25-cm or ½-inch cubes) ❖ 1 Tbsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil ❖ 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, preferably toasted
Put the peppers in a 2-liter (2-quart) pot and add the salt, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, vinegar and ¾ cup water. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Stirring occasionally, simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the peppers are tender. Add the potatoes, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Check often. If necessary, add another tablespoon or two of water to prevent the vegetables from scorching.
Remove from the heat. Gently fold in the sesame oil, creating a red swirl of peppers through the tender potatoes. Spoon mixture into a serving bowl, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve immediately.